On the afternoon of March 29, someone pulled a gun in southeast Washington and shot Marcus Owens, a 16-year-old African-American high school student from the projects. Bang, that was it, no more Marcus: no more sweetness, no more endearing smile, no more promise. Didn't even get a mention in the Washington Post.
But I happened to know Marcus, through a local tutoring program, and news of his death broke my heart. Marcus was a good kid -- not a criminal, not a gun-toting gangbanger who "had it coming." His only crime was that he lived in a bad neighborhood, one where this kind of gun death occurs all too often.
The contrast between the silence that greeted Marcus' death and the world's reaction to the massacre in Littleton, Colo., is painful to me personally, but it makes a kind of sense. There's some racism, sure -- all but one of the Littleton dead are white -- but there's also our weakness for spectacle. We're riveted by mass murder; killing kids one by one doesn't get our attention the same way.
But Littleton happens every day in America. Twelve young people murdered at Columbine High School? That's the same number of kids killed by guns daily. In 1995, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 3,280 children and teenagers were murdered with guns and 440 died in unintentional shootings. That's close to a daily dozen. Littleton is par for the course in this country. It was just a more efficient job.
But we just hear about the really big shows, the kids who had the forethought to go for the headlines. And the kids who succeeded. The week after 15-year-old Kip Kinkel opened fire with a .22 semiautomatic rifle on a crowded cafeteria in Springfield, Ore., in May 1998 -- killing two students and wounding 20 others -- other kids had similar murderous ideas.
Check out this school-based crime log for that very same week in May: Two high school students in Camden, Del., were arrested for pointing a gun at students and teachers; a freshman in Baldwin, Mo., brought to school a .22 caliber revolver that he'd taken from home; a 10-year-old in Memphis, Tenn., pointed a loaded .25 caliber semiautomatic at the head of a classmate and said "pow"; a 15-year-old middle school student in Hereford, Md., brought a semiautomatic to school; and a kid in Parkersburg, W.Va., was suspended for planting a semiautomatic pistol in his teacher's backpack.
In the inner city, deaths like Marcus Owens' happen all the time. In 1992, for instance, firearm homicide became the No. 1 cause of death for black men ages 15-34. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the homicide rate among black men ages 15-24 rose by 66 percent from 1984 to 1997, with 95 percent of this increase due to firearm-related murders.
As Jonesboro becomes Littleton becomes fill-in-the-blank, we're going to hear myriad suggestions of how to fix the problems that once again killed American schoolchildren: metal detectors in every school; more armed guards; school uniforms; no more Nintendo; no more Internet; no more cruelty.
But nothing is going to change unless lawmakers in this country start trying to reduce the numbers of guns on the street, and the number of kids who have access to guns in their homes. How can any commentator keep a straight face when the TV pundits start blaming Marilyn Manson and Oliver Stone and killers' parents, without acknowledging that guns are part of the problem.
The epidemic -- and it's nothing short of that -- of American kids lost to guns has been estimated to be 10 times the size of the polio epidemic. Yet there are few Jonas Salks we can turn to; instead -- to push the metaphor -- we have to put up with well-funded and powerful pro-polio organizations, dedicated to the spread of the disease.
In Colorado, for instance, both the state House and Senate recently passed a law denying localities the right to pass any gun laws of their own. The law is aimed at Denver, which recently banned assault weapons; apparently NRA president Charlton Heston can't sleep at night knowing that the NRA's annual convention -- to be held in Denver on Saturday -- won't feature the latest in shiny new high-tech machinery that will allow future disturbed young men to kill our children quicker, faster and in greater numbers.
So prepare for more Springfields and Jonesboros and Littletons. Let the custodians clean up the blood. And I'll remember Marcus Owens, who was shot down March 29 because his life wasn't worth as much as a PAC check.